September 24, 2007

A Stingless Foray

I spent more than four hours in the woods yesterday and didn't get stung even once. I came up with a number of specimens, some of which are species that I've found before and several that weren't. Most of them are shown below; I'm waiting on spore prints from three more because I can't identify them at all without one.

A particularly pristine specimen of Amanita fulva, an edible that I've found before. This one, however, has its volva fully intact.
Amanita verna is one of the "destroying angels" complex, along with Amanita virosa and Amanita bisporigens. Unlike those two, it does not turn bright yellow in 2% KOH. Each basidium gives rise to four spores, unlike A. bisporigens, in which they give rise to only two. Like the other members of the complex, its spores are amyloid (i.e., they turn blue in an iodine solution).

With a name like "destroying angels," you know this one is only edible once. Then you have three to seven days until the amatoxins kill you in terrible ways. From the damage to this pileus of this specimen, it looks like some very hungry slug didn't get that memo. I wonder whether it died. In any case, this mushroom is one of the most lethally toxic fungi in the world and it's not a bad idea to know how to recognize it in the field. It's also why I always include the disclaimer "don't try this at home" when it comes to the entire genus. This is a textbook destroying angel; like all species, there's some variability and the one you find may not look just like this one.

Helvella macropus is a master of camouflage; I only found these specimens because I was down on hand and knee inspecting something else. It's an ascomycete, more closely related to elf saddles and morels than it is to the other mushrooms shown here. Tiny and drab, it probably produces a blood toxin called MMH (monomethylhydrazine) like most of its close relatives. That same chemical is used as a component of some rocket fuels, which should tell you all you need to know about it. MMH is a cumulative toxin; unless you get a big dose, it will simply hang around in your body for months, then it'll knock you down. What's even more fun is that since MMH is a volatile, it's technically possible to be poisoned without even eating the fungus; simply cooking the stuff can result in intoxication. Of course, this particular fungus is so inconspicuous and thin-fleshed that most people never see it, and so as far as I know there haven't been any poisonings attributed to H. macropus to date.
This one's a stumper; I know it's a Lactarius, but the combination of characters doesn't key to any that I've found. The latex is copious, white and unchanging and doesn't stain the gills. The taste is very hot, like the taste of hot peppers. You can see coloration and zonation for yourself. The spores are amyloid and approximately 6μ x 8μ. If anybody can figure out its identity, please let me know.
After seeing a couple of poisoners and a few pathogens recently, it's nice to see something entirely benign. This common puffball is Lycoperdon pyriformes, probably the most commonly encountered puffball in North America. It's perfectly edible as long as the spore mass inside remains white, after which it turns into a distinctly inedible (but still nontoxic) powdery grayish mass. This fungus spends its time breaking down dead plant material. Compared to things like Amanita verna and Armillaria mellea, this is practically the Gandhi of the fungal realm.

Did I really just compare a fungus to Gandhi? I must need some coffee...

Humorous sidenote: "Lycoperdon" means "wolf fart" in Latin. Why was this genus name given to puffballs? I dunno.

This is the largest specimen of Omphalotus olearius, the jack-o-lantern mushroom, that I have ever seen. Some of the pilei on this specimen measured more than a foot across. The cluster was home to a number of relatively large rove beetles, but I have no idea what they were doing there.
Like most of the genus Psathyrella, P. delineata is a widespread, rather nondescript mushroom. Some members of this genus are edible, some are not, and they're fairly tricky to key out. The purple-black spore print is characteristic, and like Cortinarius, many psathyrellas have a cobwebby partial veil when the fruiting bodies are young. You've probably seen a close relative of the mushroom shown here if you have a lawn; P. candolleana loves to grow on well-fertilized, well-watered grass and bears the common name "the suburban psathy." P. delineata has a bit more self-respect and makes its own way in the world, breaking down dead hardwoods. In this case, it's at work on some American elm.
Here's Russula compacta again. Unlike the specimens I found last week, this one had only a slight scent of kerosene and fish to it. Mmmmmm.
This looks a lot like Russula emetica, doesn't it? But it isn't; it's Russula silvicola, and supposedly it's edible. It's taste is every bit as acrid as R. emetica, its pellicle peels just like R. emetica, and it grows in the same habitat as R. emetica. In fact, the only way I can find to morphologically distinguish this mushroom from the notorious emetic russula is by taking the average size of 100 spores. If average spore length is 6μ, you've got R. silvicola. If it's 7μ, you've got R. emetica.

So, I just have to ask... who figured out that this mushroom was edible? Did some newbie mycologist eat the thing on a dare before being allowed entry into the "He-Man Woman Haters Mycological Society" or something? I mean, I did the test and I'm sure of my result and I still wouldn't eat this mushroom for fear that it would turn out to be like a big dose of ipecac. Who knows, maybe there really isn't a difference and R. silvicola is some twisted mycologist's joke. Somewhere in the past, though, some poor slob got stuck with the job of chowing down on a series of pink-to-red russulas and noting which ones made him puke and which ones didn't. You can't even test mushroom edibility reliably on animals; squirrels routinely eat R. emetica with no obvious bad results!

Remember, kids, stay in school, or you may wind up getting stuck with a job as a russula edibility tester someday.

"Oh crap, that one was emetica... *blurp*!"

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